How useful are selling skills for Stakeholder Engagement?
Stakeholder engagement is frequently difficult. The change team need to get stakeholders engaged and often positively involved in a change for success. Since the power in the relationship often lies with the stakeholder it seems to me this is a similar situation to a salesman-customer interaction. There are a number of basic marketing and sales models used in stakeholder engagement literature; this article argues that individual sales skills are also important.
How to be a salesman for a change
Lets break this problem down into two parts: designing stakeholder engagement and doing stakeholder engagement. Both require sales skills and thinking.
I propose that the starting point for design of activities to engage with stakeholders is evidence. What is the current status and attitude of the stakeholder to the change, how do you know? Of course, the natural way to find out is to talk to the stakeholder and ask; which is itself an engagement so requires a little thought. Key questions to get answers to are:
- What’s in the change for the stakeholder, will they be net winners or losers and what exactly are they gaining or losing?
- What is their current awareness and attitude?
- Who might influence the stakeholder?
- Who might the stakeholder influence?
- How much power does the stakeholder have to affect events in the change?
Only when the evidence has been collected can a strategy for the stakeholder be developed. The purpose of a strategy is to determine how to move the stakeholder from their current position (awareness and attitude) to a position that is required for success in the change. Now you know what you have to sell to the customer and will have some idea of the barriers to be overcome: just like a sales strategy. Built into the strategy will be an understanding of the individual preferences of the stakeholders. This recognises that individuals have different approaches to learning and as the customer has the power the change team must meet the customer on their own ground.
The design stage should take account of these differences. There are several models that can be used: Honey and Mumford’s learning styles (based on Kolb’s learning cycle), or something based on personality preferences such as MBTI. An example of designing that takes account of differences relates to the way we approach a new piece of technology — like a DVD player. Do you like to read the quick start instructions first or plug it and press some buttons to see what happens? To accommodate these differences of approach we could design an activity to give users access to a new IT tool to see how it might work for them by setting it up on a system for people to play with. But we would also provide some initial instructions alongside the display for those who like to read them first.
When engaging with stakeholders the hardest part is understanding your own position. You will have your own attitude to the change, you will be aware of much more than the stakeholders about the details, and you will have your own communication and personality preferences. This suggests that to be a salesman for change you will need empathy for the stakeholder to see the change from their position and you will need inner understanding to ensure you don’t deliver your pitch in the way that works best for you; but in the way that will work best on the stakeholder. This is quite a challenge and you can begin to see why so few people are natural salesmen.
You have lots of information to help you. Firstly you have all the information gleaned about the stakeholder; much of it from just listening. Secondly you will have designed the engagement so that different approaches have been built into the activity. You can also take some analysis yourself to understand your own preferences (strengths and weaknesses) in selling. In fact you can get specific analysis for sales people which is also supported by training.
Selling skills are very useful for stakeholder engagement. They impact the design of stakeholder engagement activities and delivery by individuals. The skills recognise the power im balance of the stakeholder relationship and the need to have different approaches to different stakeholders so that the engagement is on the stakeholder’s terms; not the projects terms.
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